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Ganesh thrives, not tradition
Final bastion of old flavour

Orthodontist Ravindra Rekhade pays obeisance to an idol of the Hindu deity Ganesh at Maharashtra Nivas on Hazra Road on Friday, the first evening of a Ganesh Chaturthi celebration that the Maharashtrians of Calcutta have been organising every year since the 1930s. Picture by Amit Datta

Ravindra Rekhade played proxy for his 86-year-old father on the first evening of the Ganesh Chaturthi rituals at Maharashtra Nivas on Hazra Road last Friday.

The orthodontist can’t be sure he will have his son play the same role someday. The young man, who is in his early 20s, has already shifted to Bangalore.

The Ganesh Chaturthi celebration organised by the Maharashtra Mandal is among the oldest in Calcutta, a tradition it has upheld since the 1930s. For Maharashtrians based in the city, the Hazra Road address is still the place to be at this time of the year.

The list of VIP visitors over the past couple of years has included Mamata Banerjee, though it might not be gratifying for her to hear that the footfall is fast decreasing. There are hardly any young faces around at the venue because many have chosen to leave Mamata’s Bengal.

“Forget the Sixties or Seventies, as a child I remember playing cricket here in a large group. There were so many people of my age around then. They have all left,” said Ninad Sagade, 22.

Rekhade’s son is an engineer who studied in Calcutta but went to Bangalore to work. Ninad, whose brother has already shifted base to Pune, is planning to move out after completing his BCom. “All my friends have left. There are few job opportunities in the city,” he rued.

Ninad’s brother Yati works for a software company in Pune and has fond memories of the celebration at Maharashtra Mandal and of Durga Puja in the company of family and friends.

Yati, who left town in 2012, said: “I moved out because there was no opportunity for the kind of work I wanted to do. But I will be back during Durga Puja because I was born and raised in Calcutta. I love the festivity of the four days.”

Subhas Mantri, the 68-year-old president of the Maharashtra Mandal, remembers his college days when there would be at least 30 young men and women at the venue on each evening of the 11-day celebration. “The Ganesh Puja at Maharashtra Nivas had more visitors then. We had about 450 families as members,” Mantri said.

The Maharashtra Mandal may be struggling to retain members but Ganesh Chaturthi has become a major event in the city’s festival calendar. An officer at Lalbazar, the city police headquarters, said the increase in the number of Ganesh pujas had prompted the police brass to consider “deployment of forces” from next year like they do for Durga Puja and Kali Puja.

According to one estimate, there are around 1,000 Ganesh pujas across the city. Many are small roadside affairs controlled by local political leaders who do not yet have the deep pockets to finance a Durga Puja with budgets running into crores of rupees.

Most of these pujas bypass the niceties of tradition, unlike at Maharashtra Mandal where care is taken to retain the flavour of a Maharashtrian celebration. Khichudi and alur dam may be the staple of the new Ganesh pujas in town but the organisers of the Maharashtra Nivas event won’t compromise on their modak, the traditional sweet that is offered as prasad to visitors.

The modak looks like a samosa from outside. Bite through the crisp outer layer — there is a steamed variety too — and you find the sweetness of ground coconut rolled into a ball like the old Bengali favourite called narkel nadu (coconut dumplings).

The second Sunday of the 11-day festival is reserved for mahaprasad, where a traditional Maharashtrian meal of matki, masala rice and jalebi, among other dishes, is served.

Marathi theatre and recitals are a part of the celebration on each day. This year’s highlight is an hour-and-a-half-long oration called Athavave Shivaraiyanche Pratap, commemorating the deeds of Shivaji.

The programmes organised by the Maharashtra Mandal round the year include Gopal Kala, celebrated the day after Janmashtami when people climb on each other to break a handi. “We do not climb on one another here because we are all old people! But we do break the handi,” said Mantri, who was a commentator on Doordarshan during the 1982 Asian Games.

What makes the celebration extra special is the repository of stories that does the rounds, recalling the moods and manners of a different era.

An old-timer said Ganesh Chaturthi used to be a private celebration in homes before the late 19th century, when Lokmanya Tilak’s initiative turned it into a community event. “The British had imposed stringent restrictions on the assembly of people. But such restrictions were waived for religious aggregations. Tilak used the opportunity and turned Ganesh Puja into a sarbojanin puja,” Mantri said.

The Maharashtra Mandal was established in 1924 while Maharashtra Nivas came into being in 1932 as a guesthouse for Maharashtrians visiting Calcutta. “It was to give them the feel of home away from home,” Rekhade said.

The large auditorium on the ground floor where all cultural programmes are held has large portraits of Subhas Chandra Bose and Rabindranath Tagore alongside those of Lokmanya Tilak and Chhatrapati Shivaji.

Chief minister Mamata, who visited Maharashtra Nivas on Friday, has held several meetings at the address over the years. Immediately after her victory in the 2011 Assembly elections, Mamata had assembled her MLAs and MPs at the venue. She had also presided over party meetings there during her stints as the railway minister.